Sunday, January 06, 2008

The new v old atheism

Brendan O'Neill

The new atheism

There is more humanity in the 'superhuman' delusions of the devout than there is in the realism of the hectoring atheists

"New atheism" was the surprise political hit of 2007. God-bashing books by Hitchens, Dawkins and other thinkers who come out in a rash when they hear the word "religion" flew out of the bookshops. Philip Pullman's anti-divine Golden Compass hit the big screen. Everywhere, God was exposed as a fraud and God botherers were given an intellectual lashing.

I am as atheistic as it gets. But I will not be signing up to this shrill hectoring of the religious. The new atheists have given atheism a bad name. History's greatest atheists, or the "old atheists" as we are now forced to call them, were humanistic and progressive, critical of religion because it expressed man's sense of higher moral purpose in a deeply flawed fashion. The new atheists are screechy and intolerant; they see religion merely as an expression of mass ignorance and delusion. Their aim seems to be, not only to bring God crashing back down to earth, but also to downgrade mankind itself.

How does 'New Atheism' downgrade mankind?

There's something bitterly ironic in the fact that the new atheists pose as the successors to Darwin. Darwin himself had little interest in baiting the devout. In the early 1880s, he was asked by the radical atheist Edward Aveling to endorse a new book on evolutionary theory. Darwin, caring little for Aveling's "anti-religious militancy", refused. He wrote to Aveling: "It appears to me ... that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion ... "

Things have moved on since the 1860. Why shouldn't New Atheists bait the devout - who believe in faith - without reason or evidence.

Marx, too, believed that direct assaults on religion were pointless. He argued (pdf) that religion existed as spiritual compensation for social alienation, and believed that once the true nature of religion as a comfort blanket in an alienated society had been revealed, it would become clear that religion is merely a secondary phenomenon dependent for its existence on socioeconomic circumstances. Radical critics should focus their intellectual ire on the degraded society that sustains religion rather than on attacking religion itself: "The criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."

Old atheists sought to "illuminate men's minds", through advancing science or deepening our understanding of capitalist society. New atheists take exactly the opposite approach. They expend all of their energy on attacking the institution of religion and its ridiculous adherents.

New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris) promote scientific method and science.

Consider their bizarre and fevered obsession with religious symbols, such as crucifixes worn around the neck,

secularism - separation of church and state.

or statements of religious belief by public figures like Tony Blair or Nick Clegg: their distaste for anything that looks or sounds vaguely religious exposes the shallow anti-intellectualism of their new atheism.

Their opposition to religion is not driven by a profound or radical vision, as was Darwin's and Marx's, but rather by a dinner-party disdain and moral revulsion for the stupidity of the religious. Where old atheism was driven by a passionate belief in progress, new atheism springs from today's crisis of secularism. It is because new atheists have lost their own belief in progress and Enlightenment

just the opposite! New Atheists do believe in progress and want to defend the advances made by the Enlightenment.

that they turn harshly against those who still cling to visions of a better society or "kingdom".

The inhumanity of the new atheism is best illustrated by its move from the world of social critique into the realm of sociobiology. Some new atheists believe humans must be genetically predisposed to believing in a higher being.

Was this study endorsed by New Atheists? Evidence?

Marx and others saw religion as the product of socioeconomic circumstances, and thus believed that religion would wither away as humanity proceeded along the path of progress. New atheists see religious belief as a kind of animalistic instinct, driven by DNA.

Not so simple as that!

Where Marx viewed people's turn towards religion as an understandable response to the harsh reality of alienation in capitalist society, new atheists see it as the product of mankind's twisted genetic makeup.

So what is their solution? Mass genetic therapy? Compulsory injections of the correct DNA - you know, the kind possessed by intelligent and well-bred people who can see through religious delusion? The new atheists' abandonment of a social outlook leads them to adopt some very grim, anti-human views.

None of the 'New Atheists' have argued for mass genetic therapy.

The key difference between the old and new atheism is in their views of mankind. For atheists like Marx (pdf), religion expressed, in a backward and limited form, human aspirations to greatness: "Man ... looked for a superhuman being in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but the reflection of himself." He continued: "The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being ... " Today, Hitchens says of religion's destructive impact: "What else was to be expected of something that was produced by the close cousins of chimpanzees?" For Marx, religion had to be abolished because it made man despicable; for new atheists religion exists precisely because man is despicable, little more than a monkey.

Man is much more than a monkey; man is not despicable.

New atheists will continue to ridicule the religious in 2008. But there is more humanity in the "superhuman" delusions of the devout - in their yearning for a sense of purpose and greatness - than there is in the monkeyman realism of the hectoring atheists.

reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.

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